What does it mean to be black? The question left an audience to reflect on Tuesday evening from 5:30-6:30 p.m., at the Office of Intercultural Engagement’s CommUNITY Dialogue, event, “Am I Black Enough?” The CommUNITY Dialogue is part of an ongoing series of dialogues throughout the month of February to discuss topics related to black culture and identity.
On Feb. 6 the evening’s dialogue focused on the black experience, microaggressions black people face and what it means to be black “enough.” When asked by the moderator, “What does it mean to black?” the audience threw out many different ideas. Is being black a social construct? In biology classes, students learn that race is not a biological reality, but exists as a social construct; this is a sentiment may students in the audience agreed with, with the stipulation that this social construct has very real consequences.
Some students said they believed that blackness was about one’s roots, arguing that blackness simply means that one is of African descent. Others contended that being black was about the unity formed in response to shared experiences of racial oppression.
When the issue of nationality and ethnicity was brought up in the discussion, audience members pointed out that, when discussing blackness, it is important to remember the distinction between race, nationality and ethnicity. These distinctions sparked a brief conversation about being black and Latinx, also referred to as the identity, Afro-Latinx. To be Afro-Latinx is to be Latin American in nationality and of African ancestry. The discussion highlighted the diversity in blackness. “I think of blackness as like an onion, it has many different layers to it,” said Jasmine Spears, a UNCG student.
The moderator then addressed the main topic of the event: “what does it mean to be black enough?” While the topic might sound silly to many, it is indeed a social phenomenon of categorization that many of the audience agreed occurs in the black community. Black people are often subjected to the idea of having to be black “enough.” Many audience members had memories growing up of being told that they acted too “white” or were called an “Oreo”: a term which refers to a black person that is perceived to be “white” on the inside.
This raised the question of just how many different stereotypes black people are subject to. Popular stereotypes include the idea that black people are too aggressive, too loud, all listen to rap, all speak in Ebonics or one that plagues black women in particular, the perception black women are always angry, dubbed “the angry black woman” stereotype. When black people do not fit these preconceived notions, they are often considered not black enough; however, it is most important to remember that black people are not a monolith.
It was noted in the dialogue, as it was very important to note, that there is nothing wrong with black people being loud, speaking in Ebonics, listening to rap or and that there is nothing wrong with black women expressing anger. Although these are stereotypical characteristics about black people, it is essential to remember that characteristics that many black people might have are demonized in society specifically because they are associated with blackness and are therefore perceived as negative.
The dialogue ultimately came back again to the topic of what it means to be black, to which many students responded in agreement that they believed being black was about one’s experience. For example, many audience members spoke about having the “police talk” with their parents as a quintessential black experience. These talks were about preparing black children for the reality of being pulled over by the police for being black, and how, in many ways, this is a vastly different experience from their white peers.
The black experience could best be understood as how one moves through life differently than those who are not black. The unique experience of blackness is present in environments such as school, the workplace as well as in everyday interactions with others. One UNCG student, Dominick Hand, said that being black is like “constantly looking at yourself through two different perspectives.” Hand also brought up W.E.B DuBois’ concept of double consciousness, concept which discusses the way in which black people must view themselves from their own perspective as well as the perspective of others in an effort to not be perceived as a threat to white society.
As the dialogue came to a close, one thing that the audience seemed to agree upon was that there is strength and unity within the black community, and that there needed to be a speaker/listener relationship among different groups in the black community. The moderator left audience members with the idea to “expect unfinished-ness,” meaning that Tuesday’s dialogue was not finished, because it was meant to simply open the door to more important conversations that needed to be had and for students to continue it among themselves and others.